“You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of their grandfathers and grandmothers. Tell them to respect the land. It is rich with the lives of their ancestors. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.” This is the sage advice of the Elders of the First Nations.
It is the start of International Mandela Day in South Africa.
I am seated in sweat lodge of the Dakota tribe run by its Elder Keith Pashe. It is the symbol of the womb of Grandmother Earth. Heated volcanic lava stones, a reincarnation of its fiery birth, are laid in a circle. It’s burning core the life force of grandmother Earth. The entrance is closed. Darkness descends.
The poured water vaporises in the air. Intense humidity, mingled with fear, is claustrophobic. Beads of perspiration stream down my face and neck, plunging to the floor in a river. The chants grow intense. I hear my heartbeats. I quench my thirst from the bowl of shared water. I conquer anxiety, guilt. We offer our prayers and share a peace pipe offering. Ancient songs conjure up the spirit ancestors. I bond with the huddled strangers. I find clarity. I feel no fear.
It is my gift of Mandela Day from Ovide Mercredi, my special friend and soul brother.
He is a Cree leader and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada. Like many from indigenous communities across the world, he fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit the land of Nelson Mandela. Having faced dehumanising decimation in so many parts of North America, there is a strong identity with our human suffering under Apartheid.
He had spent a week with me in South Africa. I understand the reverence that so many marginalised peoples feel for Mandela. He is the symbol of our triumph against impossible odds. He represents that impossible dream of absolute freedom and human dignity; the aspiration of so many for a better world and a leadership that really cares.
I am here to fulfill a promise to break bread with him in the traditional lands of the Misipawistik (Rushing Rapids) Cree nation in Grand Rapids in northern Manitoba. It nestles at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River as it flows in Winnipeg Lake, the eleventh largest fresh water lake in the world.
Ovide reminisces, “’Misipawistik’ is Cree for ‘Rushing Rapids’. I listened to it as a child. And so did my father and his father before him. But the Manitoba Hydro-electric Dam in the late 1950s imposed its twisted wound across our paradise that was our lands for millennia. It strangled the river. The sounds of the rapids died. There was no genuine consultation. Our lands were invaded and our community devastated in the name of civilisation and progress. Now our river speaks only when they open the sluice gates.”
Photo: With Ovide on the Grand Rapids as dam sluice gates are opened.
He echoes the sorrow of so many in the First Nations: “We are homeless people in our homeland. We want the recognition of our distinct status, with the right of self-government, so that aboriginal people could deal with their problems according to traditional laws and values. Now we are governed by a foreign federal Indian Act. The government dictates our status. It is paternalistic. And it deprives us of our dignity and the rights to decide how we develop our traditional lands.”
Listening to the Dakota Chief David Pashe, I comprehend. “We are given money for social security. But we have no resources for economic development. It means we are always dependent on handouts. Our young people need education, skills, opportunities and jobs. ” I see the impact of generations of abuse, the demoralisation, teenage pregnancies and exploding obesity and its attendant lifestyle diseases such as diabetes. There was a time when these ancient civilisations were the proud guardians of our planet.
“When the missionaries came west, they tried to convert First Nations people to Christianity. They were not successful because the First Nations people had their own spiritual beliefs, which were strong and powerful, and they had no reason to change,” said Mercredi. “So the Christians lobbied Parliament. They went to the politicians in the House of Commons and they sought a law to forbid First Nations people from maintaining their spiritual beliefs, customs, traditions and ceremonies. It was an act of religious bigotry.”
Photo: With Chief David Pashe, Ovide and Elder Keith Pashe
The ‘Residence Schools’ forcibly removed over 150,000 from the traditional communities in what is described as cultural genocide of ‘killing the Indian in every child’. It aimed at depriving these children of their ancestral languages, and cultural beliefs and exposed many to physical and sexual abuse. New evidence is unmasking experiments of forced starvation in certain locations. It is today the subject of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But the destruction of cultural beliefs has a profound impact on our global ecosystems. Indigenous peoples are the most reliable custodians of the health of our planet. Here in this microcosm I see how human greed has begun to kill the future of our next generations. Winnipeg Lake is a red flag, says Vicki Burns, outreach coordinator Lake Winnipeg Foundation. It earned a disturbing new title from the Global Nature Fund (GNF), as the Threatened Lake of 2013.
“The blue-green algae is getting so big you can see it from… outer space from a satellite. We are poisoning our lake. To restore the lake, the pollutants, especially phosphorous levels, will have to be removed from the water. It could take decades. But the cost of not doing anything could be more devastating — a dead lake.” In a community dependent on fishing as a livelihood and a source of food, it is another deadly blow. Somehow I doubt our leaders will have the political will to challenge the polluters who represent powerful corporate interests.
Photo: The traditional lands of the Cree
Ovide, speaking to a Canadian audience in 1999, at the introduction of (NAFTA) the North American free trade Agreement, asked: “How can Canadians learn from our terrible journey – from a free people to that of dependency in less than one century?”
“First, when you lose your land and its resources, your people will lose their ability and capacity to maintain their livelihood or their way of life. Canada is now the newest colony for corporate interests.
“When you lose your economy and the ability to control your economic future, you are reduced to a pauper, forever dependent upon the charity of those who control the economy and hold the reins of power. You lose your sovereignty of your people and their lands and territories. Your new masters of your destiny will never give it up voluntarily. And finally, to surrender your birthright as a nation of people is to die.”
I reflect on his wisdom and feel it more relevant today than any time in the history of humanity. Daily, we are assaulted by human misery and human suffering. Yesterday it was a boat carrying 170 asylum seekers that sank in rough seas off the coast of Indonesia or the 94 would-be illegal immigrants were detained in Mexico, jam-packed and suffocating in the back of a truck heading for the US border. What will it be today?
I am reminded of an ancient Native American saying, “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”
There is a global urgency. Time is running out. We need to fuse the human values that are Mandela’s global legacy and fertilise these ancient indigenous wisdoms to incubate a new optimism of a world in harmony with itself, its people and its environment. There are no boundaries and we, the ordinary concerned citizens, must now organise to battle human greed; and to incubate a new beginning that will rise like the mythological phoenix or thunderbird to protect the future of our children. DM
"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill